Does the Definition of Gentrification Matter?
Updated 8/19, originally published 10/18
Ask someone the definition of gentrification, and you are likely to hear something about changing neighborhoods, increased development, rising housing costs and residential turnover. What you will not hear, however, is the same answer twice.
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Sociologist Ruth Glass coined the phrase "gentrification" in the 1960s to describe the turnover that occurs when upper-class “gentry” move into traditionally working-class neighborhoods. It has been hot topic in urban scholarship ever since, with dozens of researchers studying the extent and effect of this form of neighborhood change.
Yet most of these analyses differ on a fundamental point: how exactly to identify and measure gentrification.
Does It Matter How We Define Gentrification?
In Gentrification: Framing Our Perceptions, our Policy Development & Research team examines the issues around measuring and defining gentrification. In a first-of-its-kind review, this paper summarizes several approaches used in recent studies of gentrification and details the complications these create for identifying where it occurs.
The options available to identify and measure gentrification are wide-ranging, with different variables and criteria used in each study to designate places that have gentrified. The paper notes these variations can lead to different findings about the consequences of gentrification, and the implications of these inconsistencies for effective policymaking.
The goal of this work is to bring more nuance to conversations around gentrification and discourage one-size-fits-all prescriptions for addressing its effects on low-income communities.
How Do Definitions of Gentrification Vary?
Part of the inconsistency in definitions of gentrification comes from the data used to measure changing neighborhood conditions. Studies based on a specific data set, time frame, or geographic area will necessarily produce findings specific to those parameters.
Yet even within research based on common data, variation still exists in the selection of areas eligible to gentrify, choice of proxy variables for gentrification, and thresholds for the amount of change necessary to count as gentrified.
Eligible to Gentrify
Many studies of gentrification start by identifying a set of neighborhoods with the potential to gentrify, i.e. with low-incomes or other signs of disinvestment at the start of the analysis. High-income and other places not included in this subset are not considered eligible for gentrification.
The selection of eligible neighborhoods is important, as it creates the starting point for determining which and how many low-income neighborhoods can gentrify. For some researchers, any community with in the bottom 50% of the income distribution within a metro area counts as ‘low-income’, while others restrict their sample to a much lower 20% threshold.
The result: The former method provides potentially 2.5 times as many candidate neighborhoods for gentrification than the latter.
Definitions can also vary by type of income measure used (family vs. household, median vs. average), the geographic area for comparison (metro vs. regional vs. national), and the choice of other qualifying criteria (e.g. condition of the housing stock, existing resident characteristics) used by researchers to identify ‘eligible’ neighborhoods.
Proxies for Gentrification
Since there is no consensus on a single, obvious condition that defines gentrification, researchers use different indicators that are assumed to signal this type of neighborhood change. These can include changes in the housing stock, economic conditions, and resident characteristics observed over time within eligible neighborhoods.
The options within these categories are numerous: changes in housing costs, affordability, or new construction; increases in income, wealth, or commercial activity; and shifts in the age, education level, occupations, or racial composition of residents. Yet most studies rely on just one or two of these variables to identify gentrification, with resident income among the most common.
A few even use outcomes associated with gentrification – such as evidence of residential displacement or changes in the racial composition of neighborhoods – to pinpoint its occurrence. This can lead to misleading findings about both where gentrification happens, as well as its consequences for low-income communities.
Even if two studies use the same data set, eligibility criteria, and variable proxies, they could still produce different results based on the amount of change each requires for gentrification to occur. For example, one study may consider any eligible neighborhood with higher median household income at the end of the study period to be gentrified, while another may only count those that experienced a greater percentage increase relative to the rest of the metro area.
Setting a hard threshold for what qualified as gentrified doesn’t necessarily capture the actual process of urban neighborhood change, either.
For one, such measures tend to treat gentrification as a binary condition, with a clear tipping point at which a neighborhood goes from low-income to gentrified. They also limit their analyses to a set of prescribed geographic areas and time frames, which may not reflect the actual contours of neighborhoods, their social character, or the rates at which they change.
The net effect of these definitional decisions is greater confusion, rather than clarification, about where gentrification occurs and its consequences for low-income communities. Indeed, applying this one term to describe neighborhoods identified through different means has broadened its definition to the point of irrelevance, with everything from rising rents to the emergence of certain chain stores now viewed as sufficient evidence of gentrification.
Despite these limitations, current studies of gentrification are still worth examining. Unpacking the myriad ways to define gentrification is a first step to understanding the problems inherent in current approaches and to developing better ways of assessing – and responding to -- neighborhood changes.
Unanswered Questions About the Impact of Gentrification
There is also much that we still don’t know about gentrification that further research could provide, including:
- Where and how often does gentrification occur? Some research suggests gentrification is widespread, while other studies contend it is concentrated in fewer than half of all low-income neighborhoods in a handful of metro areas.
- How can we identify areas at risk of or in the process of gentrification? Most research is backward-looking and only designates places as gentrified after changes in housing costs, affordability, and displacement have taken root, making effective policy responses difficult to develop and implement.
- How does gentrification affect a community and its residents? An influx of new residents and investment may be welcome changes to areas with a high share of vacant and dilapidated housing stock, while in other neighborhoods rapid turnover may lead to displacement, loss of community institutions and the social, cultural, and racial isolation of long-term residents.
Inconsistencies in the definition of gentrification also have important ramifications for housing policy, which relies on evidence about changing conditions to prescribe effective responses.
Lumping different conceptions of how neighborhoods change under the banner of “gentrification” obscures the different causes and effects of housing stock turnover and residential displacement.
Such inconsistencies can prescribe very different policy interventions based on the assumed gentrification status of a neighborhood. Yet, whether a place qualifies as “gentrified” does not change the experiences of residents facing rising housing costs and loss of community institutions.
How Should Public Policy Respond to Gentrification?
The paper identifies three key implications based in the existing research. Public policies should:
- Build in flexibility to respond to local conditions appropriately and effectively. Some communities may benefit from restrictions on new development to preserve historical or cultural landmarks, while others may need more housing to meet rising demand.
- Encourage early action in housing and community development to stave off many of the challenges associated with gentrification. Developing and preserving affordable housing before an influx of higher-income residents can limit displacement due to rising costs, while smart zoning practices such as inclusionary policies can ensure sufficient supply in the future.
- Promote affordability and opportunity in all communities, not just those experiencing gentrification. Most low-income neighborhoods do not experience rapid turnover but remain mired in poverty and disadvantage. Improving housing quality, access to education and community resources in these neighborhoods can both disperse demand across cities and ensure adequate alternatives for those displaced from gentrifying areas.
New: The Gentrification Comparison Tool
To compliment the report described above, Enterprise developed an interactive tool to visualize how different definitions of gentrification often identify different sets of changing neighborhoods.
The Gentrification Comparison Tool is the first online resource to present multiple definitions of gentrification side-by-side. It allows users to analyze three different definitions of gentrification in 93 U.S. cities over four decades, providing a hyper-local view of changing conditions in more than 14,000 neighborhoods.
The tool maps the results of our analysis side-by-side-by-side for all 93 U.S. cities that have at least one eligible tract under all three definitions in each of the four most recent decades (1970s through 2000s). The data are from the 1970-2010 Neighborhood Change Database, purchased under license from Geolytics, Inc., which normalizes tract-level characteristics to 2010 tract boundaries for all Decennial Census years.
By selecting a city and decade, users can view the neighborhoods each definition classifies as gentrified, eligible but not gentrified, and not eligible. The tool also shows the inputs into each definition, so users can determine what drives differences in the tract-level classifications. Finally, it calculates the overlap across the three definitions in the number of places deemed gentrified in each city and decade.
The tool shows clearly that different definitions of gentrification result in very different sets of neighborhoods being identified as such. Across the 93 cities and four decades, the degree of overlap among all three definitions ranges from 0 to 8 percent. Clearly, definitions matter.
What Can Be Learned by Comparing Different Definitions of Gentrification?
We invite users to explore these three definitions of gentrification and apply their knowledge about different cities and neighborhoods at different points in time to the data provided.
Key questions to consider include:
- How different are the results from each gentrification definition?
- How do the results of these definitions align (or not) with your own understanding about neighborhood-level changes in these places over time?
- What do these definitions lack that would create a more complete perspective?
It's important to note that this tool is not intended to suggest that one measure is more accurate or relevant than the others. Every measure of gentrification reveals something about how neighborhoods change over time.
The problem lies in labeling all these different approaches “gentrification,” which obscures that word’s meaning to the point of irrelevance. Nor can any set of aggregated data provide a complete picture of what occurs, at a more granular level, to people, buildings, institutions and communities. Without that local context and perspective, no quantitative measure of gentrification will ever give the full story.